OSN Exclusive Interview: David Dodson
With Outlander begining to roll out in Europe, we decided to sit down (figuratively) with Outlander's Editor, David Dodson to discuss the Challenges of cutting a multi-genre feature film of a grand scale.
Can you introduce yourself to us? What got you into the film industry and editing in particular?
My love for cinema started when I was five years old and my mom took my brother and I to go see "2001: A Space Odyssey." All decisions regarding my future were made during that film. That was it. Game over.
Editing happened almost accidentally. I had directed a short film. The DP was a super-talented guy named John Pirozzi. John has just directed a music video and was looking for someone to edit it. Since I owed him for DP'ing my short, I volunteered. Well, that music video went on to get nominated for an MTV VMA award. Soon I was getting calls to cut things. First more music videos. Then commercials. Then reels and documentaries. But of course, most editors want to cut features and I was certainly no different.
What are some of the other projects you've been attached to?
I've just finished this lunatic comedy called HITLER KAPUT! It's a Russian film about a Russian spy embedded in Gestapo headquarters in Berlin during the last days of World War II. Truly one of the funniest films I've ever seen. It opens in Russia in September then begins its move west. I would look for it in the U.S. next Spring.
Next I'm doing a romantic comedy in New York City called BOYS & GIRLS. And after that I'm supposed to do a big medieval castle siege movie called IRONCLAD. Great cast. Sir Richard Attenborough is attached to be in it and, frankly, that's all I needed to hear.
I actually recently watched the russian trailers for Hitler Kaput! It looks pretty crazy... Hilariously whacky really. How do you find editing comedy compares to the action scenes in Outlander?
For me, cutting comedy and cutting action are exactly the same task. One little hiccup in timing an either the joke goes flat or, in the case of action sequences, the audience experiences an interruption in rhythm that takes the teeth out of the sequence.
That said, comedy is different. There's no use pretending that it's not. And either you're funny or you're not. Either you "get" what makes comedy work or you don't. And even then, humor is such an individual thing that a joke that you think is bullet-proof will land with a thud once you get it in front of an audience. And vice-versa.
When I cut comedy I generally tend to do less experimentation. After seeing the dailies and talking with the director, it's very easy for me to "see" the scene before I make so much as a single cut. I'm already laughing while watching dailies. And then it's just a matter of letting it happen as cleanly and as clearly as possible. Because comedy needs air and light to thrive. Basically, you just want to get out of the way. The fancier you get the more you kill the comedy.
What inspires you in your work? What would you say your influences are?
I used to date a girl who got her Masters in Cognitive Development. And while we were together all I wanted to do was read her text books. I've always been fascinated by who we are and why we do the things we do. The simple miracle of daily life is a lifetime curriculum. And the cinema -- when it's good -- gives us ways to explore and understand who we are. Film editing IS that experience. When you edit, you are looking in to the eyes and the hearts of the actors, looking for what is true and what is false. And then you are shaping that in to something seamless, invisible, and compelling.
My influences are any films that move me. In the end, editing should be invisible. The only thing that matters is a viewer's emotional experience. Whatever gets in the way of that experience is bad editing. Whatever stands aside and makes room for it is good editing.
How did you become involved with Outlander? What was it about the project that appealed to you?
I got involved with OUTLANDER because I had done work for the company that produced the film. I had never cut a film for them but I was friends with the principles and had cut a number of promotional reels on other projects for them. I got a call one day to go meet with Howard McCain about cutting a promotional reel for OUTLANDER, to help raise money. It turned out that Howard and I are the same age and, while he grew up in Syracuse and I grew up in Dallas, we had roughly the same movie-appreciation experiences as kids. We both loved JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. So we got along.
After we finished the promotional reel, they hired me to do animatics for OUTLANDER. So if you look carefully in the credits, I'm in there twice, once as editor, and then hidden way down there under "Animatics". Anyway, by this time, I really loved the movie. I loved the sheer, audacious movieness of the film. Vikings. Aliens. All those things than can ONLY happen in the movies. And so I couldn't imagine NOT cutting it. So Howard really went to bat for me and helped lobby the producers to give me this chance. Eventually, they surrendered, maybe because they had so many other bigger things to worry about. But I got the job and worked like a coal miner. It was great.
Outlander has a number of varied elements, from horror, action, adventure, romance, drama, sci-fi and more. The most talked about though is it's combination of period film with science fiction. Normally, do you think you would approach editing for these two genres different? What challenges did this melding of genres present in striking a balance between these elements?
There has been a lot of conversation about this idea -- the notion that OUTLANDER's seemingly unholy marriage of genres is a great challenge. But for me, it was never an issue. Editing is a search for truth, for authenticity, and for the musical rhythm that tells a story. So when dailies show up on your Avid you're looking for the exact same quality of honesty and spontaneity whether it's a two-room parlor drama or an alien beast freak-out.
The process of editing a feature is often about finding out what the true heart of the story is and pruning away everything that's not that. But if you prune too much you're left with a withered, anemic skeleton. But if you don't prune enough, then the audience is left having to machete their way through the jungle of your story, probably to just get lost and give up. So it's a challenge. And in OUTLANDER's case, the script was actually chock full of scenes that ultimately got pruned away as we searched for the best possible expression of that story.
It's also worth mentioning that we had a contractual running time that we had to meet. So we were not afforded the luxury of indulging ourselves. Some things that had to be sacrificed were really terrific. And it's heartbreaking when that happens. But the film really crackles now and in the end that's what really matters.
Nearly a year ago, Don Carmody mentioned Outlander was (in a rough cut) nearly three hours long! I think the current film plays at 115 minutes. That's a lot of sequences to pare out. Did you and howard also work out an "extended" cut of the movie for the DVD market? At the very least it sounds like there's a lot of material for the bonus features section...
Now now, Don knows better than to make anything out of the fact that the first cut was over three hours long (in fact, exactly 3 hours and 13 minutes). Every movie starts off life a whole lot longer than what ends up on screen. Sometimes this has to do with whole scenes that go away. But more often than not it has to do with the fact that most editors tend to deliberately do a "kitchen sink" first cut. You put in every line, every action, every beat, extra coverage, everything. Because usually the director wants and needs to see everything. Remember, the director is emerging from the tornadic experience of shooting. This director is exhausted, excited and terrified. And sometimes he is suffering from a self-inflicted amnesia, convinced as he is that he just shot PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE meets MANOS, HANDS OF FATE.
But the director usually wants to see it all. So you give it to him, always knowing that a third of this is going to go away, sometimes with the excision of entire scenes or sequences, sometimes just by tightening scenes.
In OUTLANDER's case, yes, there were a number of scenes that went away. And for all kinds of reasons. But the truth is that as we tightened and tightened, most written and shot scenes ended up in the movie.
As far as an "extended" cut is concerned, no, Howard and I did not work out any other version. First, there simply wasn't time. But second, and more important (and I'm speaking for myself only here) I feel we ended up with the right cut for this movie. We tested slightly longer versions and they simply never did as well as the 115 minute cut. Maybe we didn't have a chance to really break the back of a longer cut. But again, this is all subjective.
What scenes were the hardest to lose to get the film down to the contractual legnth? Were there other sequences that you would have liked to spend more time on but ended up compressing?
I'm absolutely the least sentimental guy in the world when it comes to scenes getting shorter. Most movies are far too long anyway. So I'm very happy when I can create a graceful, full-bodied scene that is tight and affecting. But you have to know when to let it breathe and when to crack the whip on it.
One of the scenes I was sad to see get shorter was a lovely moment early in the film in which John Hurt tells Jack Huston the story of how Shield Hall was founded. And Hurt is one of the very best there is. I could watch him read a thousand page House appropriations bill. And here Hurt's wistful remembrance in this particular scene was really beautiful. Ultimately, however, it just took too long, breaking up the overall rhythm of a multi-scene sequence and taking the audience out of the Kainan story for too long. But I really hated to see that go.
How would you describe your working relationship with Outlander's director? Some directors are very abstract, describing things more emotionally rather than explicitly whereas others know exactly what they're shooting for.
Philosophically-speaking, I believe that it's the editor's job to help bring a director to his vision and then take him beyond it. That said, every director is different. In Howard's case, having him in the editing room is a genuine pleasure. Heaven knows I've worked with directors of whom just the thought of them walking through the door is enough to make you sink into bitterness and loathing. But Howard is himself a terrific editor. And that's when it's good. And since we already shared a common appreciation for a common roster of films, we had an available shorthand that made fleshing out an idea that much easier.
By the time Howard and I got to actually spend quality time together cutting, I had already completed a full cut of the picture. And so then we would go in to the scenes and really start digging in to what they wanted to be. Howard would often say something like, "What if we were to lose three frames from the tail of that second shot?" I'd do it. And it would either get better or it wouldn't. But I never minded his specificity because he has a great sense of when it was working and when it wasn't. And that's a rare thing.
Howard and I didn't really get in to much abstract philosophical discussion. Sure, at times there were these umbrella conversations about sequences, acts, and the overall motion of the story. But by the time you're into the nitty-gritty of cutting, most of that stuff is already well-understood and what you're doing is trying to create the physical balance, the physical rhythm, the physical proportions of the scenes so that they become an inevitable, cascading self-animated thing.
But in the end, Howard bled out the eyeballs for this film and that's something that demands respect. I would carry my Avid through fire for him.
Can you walk us through the general process of editing a scene for outlander? How much creative licence were you allowed in how you cut together the various sequences?
With OUTLANDER nearly every scene was shot with three or more cameras running simultaneously. During the shield dance scene as well as during Gunnar's Raid, there might be as many as six cameras shooting at the same time. So when you're dealing with a tsunami of dailies like that, your first and most important job is to make sure you have a great assistant. I was very lucky to have two amazing assistants. First, Ehren Davis in Halifax. and then Andrea Zondler in Los Angeles. They make it possible for you to be able to do any work at all. So... big shout-out to two heroes!
Naturally, every editor has his or her own way of approaching a scene. I like to watch every last take down to the frame several times before I start making cuts. I don't make notes. I don't make a go-to reel. I tend to memorize the footage, building the scene in my head. And then I go do it. And the result is my first draft. Inevitably I've missed something or I've forgotten a shot I wanted to use in a certain way, and so I go back and keep shaping. And I watch what I've done, over and over and over -- even if it's just one cut. Because what I'm really trying to achieve is invisibility and inevitability. And then when I can finally watch the scene and either laugh or be moved or get excited and otherwise forget that I had anything to do with it, then I know I'm getting close to having it right.
Fortunately, I have been blessed to work with directors and producers who have given me great trust and confidence in handling their precious footage. I've always had full creative license to create the scene, the sequence, the story in the editing room. There are scenes in OUTLANDER that I cut in Halifax during shooting that did not change one single frame and are in the final film as I originally cut it. It's very satisfying when it happens because it means that everyone did their job -- the director, the actors, the make-up people -- everyone. And me!
A lot of recent action films use a lot of quick cutting to make the films feel frenetic. Can you describe the editing style you used on Outlander?
When it comes right down to it, so much of the "editing style" of a film is determined by the director and DP. As an editor, I inherit their design. And whereas, as editors we have a lot of freedom to alter that design, some things are just baked in to the DNA of a shot, and that's just something you have to live with, for better or worse.
For this movie, Howard wanted a richly cinematic feel, with composed shots and elegant movement. But he also wanted the disorienting frenzy associated with being in the middle of a swirling maelstrom. So when cutting, it's often important that the audience has an absolute sense of geography. Where is the monster? Where is Kainan? Is Wulfric over here or over there? Naturally, you play with these questions to build suspense and excitement but these are some of the things that determine how fast or how slow the shots are going by.
For me, I have no particular dogmatic devotion to any one style. The 'Bourne' movies are amazing. I love the way they handle their action scenes. But I also love Gregory Peck's and Charlton Heston's nocturnal fist-fight in THE BIG COUNTRY. Each method of shooting and cutting perfectly served the essence of that particular story.
Is there any particular scene in Outlander that you think really stands out, or that you are particularly proud of?
Well, without giving too much away, there is a scene at the beginning of the third act that was originally designed to play in one longer stretch. And for the longest time, we were all having trouble trying to decode the ending of the film. It was a real puzzle of competing values that was proving very hard to solve. But then I came up with the notion of taking a particular moment out of that longer scene and moving it to near the end of the movie. And when I tried it, it added a much more focussed beam of emotional energy to the ending. I give myself a pat on the back for that one.
I'm sorry to be so cryptic about it but to say anything more would simply ruin the fun of seeing it for yourself!
THere's so much footage, takes, and scenes to keep track of on a production of this scale. There's A cameras, B camera's, second units, pickup shots etc? How do you manage all the data and keep it organized so that it comes into a cohesive whole?
As I mentioned above, the job is too big for one person. On OUTLANDER I had my editorial assistant (Ehren and then Andrea). But we also had two VFX editors as well as an editorial PA. All of these people keep the pipelines moving and organized so that I have what I need to cut the movie.
Of course, I have very specific ways that I like to name the shots and the takes. It gives me a quicker mnemonic reference. But as silly and as mundane as it sounds, it's all about organization. And on a movie the size of OUTLANDER, that organization is truly a team effort.
But a final word about this; cutting a movie like OUTLANDER is a 14-hour day, and often much more. There is nothing glamorous about this work. It is coal mining. So you have to love it.
How did the editing process on Outlander compare to other projects you've worked on in complexity?
Any VFX-heavy feature is going to be daunting in its complexity. And this was certainly the biggest movie I've done in terms of budget and sheer scope. But I find this complexity fun and satisfying.
Outlander boasts about 500 VFX shots. What kind of challenges does this add to editing a film when so many of the shots are essentially unavailable at the outset of the editing process?
As everyone knows, in these kinds of films, the VFX pipeline is planned and (hopefully) built even before shooting starts. You should have extensive storyboards as well as animatics for all the major sequences. And then, after shooting, you have shots that need a lot of VFX to finish and some that are just, say, set extensions. In either case, you cut in what you've got. And in those cases where you have nothing, you cut in a card that says "Shot Missing" for about as many frames as you suspect that shot will end up being. Or you cut in a storyboard -- anything to communicate what's supposed to go there.
Then soon, developing iterations, blocking animations, whatever is being generated finds its way to your Avid and you use these pieces to build the scene/moment block by block. At times, emerging VFX shots will reveal something either about the story or about the practical logistics of a shot that you never would have suspected. And that revelation may cause an entirely new round of changes and inspirations. It's a never-ending roundelay that you just have to roll with. And truthfully, what could be more fun?
We understand that Outlander was the first time you've edited a feature film using a system where you were able to work in HD? What were the benefits of switching to such a system for the editing process?
I would get more excited about cutting in HD if the truth is that with this we are really going back to the future. Please remember that before NLE's movies were cut using 35mm workprint. When you put a piece of film on the Steenbeck you were looking at full film resolution material. So, for me, cutting in HD is a bare-minimum requirement of doing this job. For so many years of NLE we've been stuck cutting material that gets seen on a giant screen but cutting it on a SMALL screen in low resolution. It's sad.
But now, with HD in the editing room, we finally are able to get back to being able to see the finest details and the truest nuance of an actor's performance. We are also better able to make critical technical evaluations that are vital to insuring a seamless experience for the audience.
I want to ONLY cut in HD from now on.
At times Outlander has been described, at least tonally and thematically as being like Predator, Highlander, Braveheart, Alien, The Thirteenth Warrior, and even King Kong. Was there any conscious effort to pay homage to other great Sci-fi films or any other possible influences behind the film?
I think what Howard and Dirk have come up with borrows from a whole library of genres and in so doing creates its own unique and wickedly exhilarating niche. I've never once bought in to this idea that audiences have trouble with mixed genres. Not for one second.
"Paying homage" is something that is unavoidable when working in an art form that's been around for over a hundred years. Everything has been done. So quoting from other films is inevitable, whether intentional or not. There are cinematic flourishes that have been so completely incorporated into the basic vocabulary of film that you HAVE to use them.
I can tell you that I did create one deliberate homage -- and that was to one of Howard and I's favorite films, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. During the shoot I was dispatched to co-direct a 2nd unit reshoot of a scene that Howard was unable to get to. The scene involved Rothgar and Boromir hunting in the forest for the Moorwen. On location in the wilds of Nova Scotia, I found this tree stump that looked EXACTLY like Devil's Tower. I knew I had to get it in the movie so I set up a shot that started on the stump from a low-angle then moves to reveal John Hurt and Cliff Saunders stalking what they think is the monster. That was the extent of my homaging.
Every project has difficulties. What would you say were the greatest challenges working on Outlander? How have you grown (and what have you learned) from facing these challenges?
Meeting our contractual running time while crafting an exciting, full-bodied experience -- that was the greatest challenge on OUTLANDER. And what have I learned? Well, anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger!
Any other thoughts you would like to share about your work on the film? Did you enjoy the process and are you happy with how your work turned out?
OUTLANDER has been a career highlight. I've made great friends and had the opportunity to be a part of a real movie movie, a movie with Vikings and broadswords and alien creatures. It's so uniquely cinematic. And it's very satisfying to be a part of that. I happen to love the movie!
Thanks again David, and keep up the good work. We are really looking forward to seeing this movie. IT looks like a lot of fun. Maybe we can do this again once the film is out and we can talk more about specific sequence and what not.